Having cut his teeth at Claridge's and the Berkeley before establishing a trinity of his own restaurants in Clapham, Adam Byatt is heading back to Mayfair with Sir Rocco Forte's historic Brown's hotel. Emma Lake reports
Brown's, the quintessentially British hotel situated just off London's Piccadilly and a stone's throw from the Royal Academy of Arts, has welcomed "truly British chef" Adam Byatt to celebrate contemporary indigenous cuisine underpinned by a bygone era of service.
There is a synergy between the establishment and chef that will see heritage and provenance celebrated with the contemporary absorbed to delight and surprise, but not to usurp tradition built up over hundreds of years.
"The hotel is British, it's in Mayfair, it's got a huge amount of heritage and it sits really well with me and what I believe in food," explains Byatt.
"I think it's important that what we produce here is reflective of the hotel. You come to Brown's and the food you get feels absolutely correct, the quality of the produce is impeccable, the standard of the cooking is really high, the people cooking it have an awful lot of love for the food and it has a British heritage."
For Byatt – chef-proprietor of Michelin-starred Trinity, Upstairs and Bistro Union, all in London's Clapham – the appointment is a return to his own roots, having started his career aged 16 at Claridge's hotel in Mayfair, before moving with then head chef John Williams to the Berkeley in nearby Knightsbridge.
Byatt has long held a desire to return to one of London's historic five-star hotels, recalling how the first experience of such an institution "tingles the hairs on the back of your neck". It's something he saw at the five-red-AA-star, 115-bedroom Rocco Forte hotel when he visited with his daughter.
"I brought my daughter here in the early parts of the discussions for a little lunch to scope things out," he explains. "We walked up to the door – they didn't really know who I was at that point – and the doorman took out a chocolate gold coin, pulled it out from behind her ear and gave it to her.
"From that point on all she thinks is ‘Brown's is the best hotel in the world'. It was that magic moment when her chin was on the floor; when you look at someone experiencing that for the first time, that's what you try to capture. Even if it's the most seasoned Mayfair lady who lunches, they still should have a little piece of that when they walk in." Brown's, which opened its doors in 1837 – the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne – has another personal connection to the chef, with his grandfather having worked as a bell boy at its entrance in the 1960s.
The opportunity has come at a time when Byatt says he is ready for a new challenge, with Trinity approaching its 13th birthday and the "strongest it has ever been", having held its Michelin star since it was awarded in the 2017 guide. He says: "I needed another challenge. I could sit back, just enjoy it and work at my restaurants all the days I want to, but I'm only 45 and I need another big project. This opportunity puts us into Mayfair, which is incredible; it's working with an established, serious, high-end hotel group and it's about growing and learning for me and my team. That is a big part of this for me. I know I'm going to learn a lot from doing this."
Byatt will oversee the hotel's only restaurant – which previously spent a year hosting Heinz Beck of three-Michelin-starred La Pergola in Rome following the departure of Mark Hix – as well as breakfast, in-room dining, banqueting and afternoon tea. The hotel's Donovan bar, which serves a cocktail menu compiled by Salvatore Calabrese, remains distinct but will offer a food menu devised by Byatt.
The restaurant is to be officially relaunched as Charlie's on 9 September – named for Lord Charles Forte, the late father of the founder of the Rocco Forte Hotels – and Byatt has spent the preceding months making small, incremental changes towards his final vision, which he says could take up to three years to be fully realised.
He explains: "This is a moving train; it's the oldest hotel in London and it's been doing this for 150 years. It's important I enter it in a sympathetic way, making small changes that are incremental and meaningful.
Introducing incredible people is the first, so I've brought in 14 incredible people – 11 of whom have previously worked for me. I've introduced 42 suppliers, all of which I've built up relationships with at Trinity over the last 13 years. It's a huge change in the supply chain and the level at which we buy, but also in terms of some of the ethical things I buy.
"Then we concentrate on one thing at a time to make all the food sing and fit together. I've been very honest from the beginning and said it will take a long time to get to the vision of where I want to be, which is a place where you will come to London to eat at Brown's because the food level and quality of cookery is so high. That's my vision, but that's going to take a long time."
The chef stresses that Charlie's will not be a diluted version of his signature restaurant Trinity transported into Mayfair. Like Trinity's more casual sister restaurant Upstairs and the neighbourhood Bistro Union before it, Charlie's will have its own identity, something Byatt says he relishes developing.
"I love that, it really keeps me stimulated creativity-wise," he explains. "I'm not one of those chefs who only does high-end Michelin. I look at a piece of food and think ‘that's somebody's dinner – how can I make that as yummy as possible and as appropriate for the scenario they're sitting in as possible?'.
"Being a modern chef-restaurateur is about being able to adapt a product to fit the environment and please people – it's not about you. It's not ‘look at my signature piece of haddock, I'm a genius, worship me.' It's about how we get that haddock on to as many plates as possible, appropriate to the price point, the service style and the restaurant, and make it sing."
Describing the menu as contemporary British, Byatt – along with executive chef of the hotel Owain Atkinson and head chef of Charlie's Matt Starling – will ensure the restaurant is "new and interesting, while not getting away from what is true and classic".
Byatt adds: "The menu has a really classic feel; you will recognise every single thing on that menu, what turns up on that plate will absolutely mirror what you have just ordered, but it will be delivered in a way that is up to date.
"Say dressed crab: does dressed crab fit into a five-star hotel in Mayfair? Absolutely. Are you going to get a crab shell with three lines of crab and the egg white and the yolk? No, you are not. You're going to get something that looks like it was made by me and my team using suppliers I use with a modern approach to the cookery and all the wonderful techniques we use at Trinity. It's still a dressed crab, but I hope when you get that and eat that you think, ‘this is an exceptional dressed crab'."
Alongside à la carte and set menus, the chef has introduced a lunch trolley service harking back to classic hotel dining, but with an updated offering. Among the dishes to be served tableside are poached Landes chicken, chicken velouté, vegetables and tarragon; North African-spiced lamb shoulder, toasted couscous and preserved lemon; whole dressed Loch Duart salmon, potato salad, cucumber and mayonnaise; as well as a Sunday offering of roasted rib of Lake District beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and horseradish.
Explaining the decision, he says: "We've got a beautiful trolley and I think a daily lunchtime trolley is a magical thing, I really do. I remember like it was yesterday working at Claridge's and doing the trolley. Every day it would be different.
It would be chicken à la serviette, wrapped in a buttered serviette and poached, then served with this chicken tarragon velouté – I can still taste it, it was magical. I've brought that back into here because I think it feels really appropriate, it might not be the most up-to-date way of doing things, but it is the magical part."
Having undergone a redesign before Heinz Beck's arrival in April last year, Charlie's is not set for an aesthetic overhaul. However, art has been commissioned from Kristjana Williams, whose work adorns the walls of both Trinity and Upstairs. The stripped-back approach to table setting seen at Byatt's Clapham restaurants will be introduced, with the chef adding that he prefers to "overdeliver on an understated beginning".
Byatt's years in the industry – it will be 30 since he first stepped into the kitchen at Claridge's next year – have seen him build up a network of artisans and suppliers, as well as a team, and he says it is "lovely" to launch his latest project alongside them.
"I have the best team I've ever had in my life", he says. "What was great was that when I went to do this project, I put the feelers out to people and the response was fantastic –they all wanted to be a part of it. It blew me away. I now ave, across everything, the most incredible team, I'm so proud of them. There are some real superstars that will become the industry leaders of the future."
Byatt's own future is busy: a new afternoon tea offering is set to be introduced later this year and he is overhauling the in-room dining and drinks across Brown's. With the hotel not far from his Clapham portfolio, he will be travelling between his projects as needed and, while stressing that now does not feel like the time to open another restaurant on the high street, he suggests that he may even have another project up his sleeve in the years to come.
Managing director Stuart Johnson
Chef director Adam Byatt
Executive chef Owain Atkinson
Head chef Matt Starling
Restaurant covers 74
From the menu
• Dressed Cornish crab salad £17
• Pressed terrine of St Brides chicken and ceps, toasted brioche £14
• Brown's salad with endive, candied walnuts, pear and duck ham £12
• Wild turbot cooked on the bone with Palourde clams, lemon, garlic and chilli £39
• A braise of Cumbrian lamb with coco beans, cime de rape and salsa verde £25
• St Bride's guinea fowl, ham, tarragon and leek pie £19
• Mixed brassicas dressed in a warm aged Gouda dressing with smoked almonds £17
• Crème caramel, raisins soaked in Sauternes wine £12
• Hot chocolate pudding with malted milk ice-cream £12
• Salted caramel custard tart £12
Sir Rocco Forte's hotel group
Rocco Forte Hotels was founded in 1996 under the name RF Hotels by Sir Rocco Forte and his sister, Olga Polizzi, who is responsible for the design of each property. Sir Rocco had previously joined his father's company Forte in 1969, working his way up to become chief executive and chairman. During his time with the company, Sir Rocco had responsibility for more than 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and nearly 100,000 employees in 50 countries worldwide.
In 1996, Forte was bought by Granada, which ultimately led to the break-up of the disparate empire. RF Hotels was renamed Rocco Forte Hotels in 2007, after Compass Group returned the rights to the Forte business name that it had inherited from its merger with Granada in 2000.
Brown's managing director Stuart Johnson on bringing Adam Byatt to the hotel
"I have known Adam for a very long time and always admired him and watched his progress. I adore his food style, his insistence on quality of produce and its provenance. When we were looking at how the menu would evolve here I went again to Bistro Union, Trinity and Upstairs and, despite the three restaurants having different styles, the one thing that really stood out above everything else was the sincerity, the quality and the energy that is in the food flavour.
"His food is sophisticated in a noncomplex way and therefore it speaks to you. Everybody eats with their eyes first; you can have an amazing piece of meat, but it must be presented to the guest in such a way that they go ‘wow' and I think every single dish we have on our menu will have a wow factor with it.
"He is quintessentially English and we always say Brown's is quintessentially English, with a hint of the unexpected, and I think that's exactly what I described in Adam's food. The feedback we've had already from those who have come in has been ‘wow, I didn't expect that' or ‘it's an absolutely perfect dish, but with a twist'."
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